Timothy Dalton was the first introduction of a new James Bond in my lifetime. Yet it wasn’t a big deal to nine-year-old Franchise Fred because I just couldn’t understand the plots of movies like For Your Eyes Only or Octopussy. Actually I still can’t but in adulthood realized that’s what’s fun about them. I already knew that James Bond could be played by different people. There were the two famous ones and that one guy who only made one movie, so The Living Daylights was a chance for people of the ’80s to find their new Bond. You know, if you were into that sort of thing.
When I finally became a Bond fan, post Pierce Brosnan, The Living Daylights became my second favorite right behind The Spy Who Loved Me. Maybe it was the strongest modern day Bond, at least what seemed closest to my ’90s reality. Then I sincerely regretted not seeing The Living Daylights when it came out in 1987.
It was more than a turning point for a new actor. They’d run out of Ian Fleming novels, but still had some short stories. The short story The Living Daylights exists in its entirety in the first 20 minutes of the movie, really the 12 minutes after the opening titles. Bond is helping a Russian defect when he spots a sniper trying to assassinate him. Instead of killing the beautiful woman (Maryam D’Abo), he shoots the gun out of her hand and scares the living daylights out of her.
It’s sort of romantic, if a bit white knight-y. He saves her because he can tell she’s not truly a killer and Bond proves right. She was only a patsy, but the notion of a female assassin is feminist. Defecting Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) says some of the best KGB shots are women. The film is not too feminist though. Bond still pats Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) on the butt. At least it’s out of frame so you only hear the foley of the butt pat.
It’s a bit of From Russia With Love old spycraft too, helping enemy agents defect. The anti-spy message of “Smiert Spionam” also comes from Fleming. In the short story it was a British agent escaping East Berlin and took place over three nights, but in streamlining the story it offers a faithful adaptation.
From there they’ve embellished the story. Bond rescues the assassin, Kara Milovy, and discovers a plot by Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) to sell arms. A fairly typical Bond movie plot, but worthwhile in exploring what happens after this short story. What happens when Bond gets a naive pawn involved in a full on globe trotting adventure?
The Living Daylights comes at the peak of ’80s practical stunts with old school Fleming-esque stories. Or, more accurately, the Austin Powers-y movie embellishments of Fleming. Whitaker’s plot is convoluted and megalomaniacal, but it sure is fun to see Bond foil it. And The Living Daylights has some of my favorite Bond action.
Dalton’s Bond is at his most improvisational when he turns Kara’s cello case into a sled to elude bad guys down a mountain over a border. It’s also a fun twist on the classic 007 snow action motif. The climactic sequence is a stunner with stuntmen hanging from a canopy out of a plane in mid air duking it out. A horseback raid across a bridge looks epic thanks to foreground miniatures, a lost art now that filmmakers rely on CGI which never looks as real as this. The pre-title action has a stuntman hang onto a jeep that drives off a cliff with explosives.
The new Bond car has one gadget-palooza chase on an iced over lake and there are some great practical car gags: Bond lasers a police car off its chassis, drives an ice fishing shack onto the lake and saws a round hole in the ice. Later, an airfield stunt has one plane take off while another lands on the same runway. It looks like they only did one take but those shots are in the movie.
Dalton wanted to be a more grounded Bond than Roger Moore had been. The script had been written for Moore in case he returned for an unprecedented eighth film, so Dalton had some of the outrageous stunts scaled back. There’s a deleted scene of one on the DVD and Blu-ray. The Living Daylights feels appropriately tailored to him and he fits in jumping into the deep end of the Bond machine already in motion.
While the film seemed relatively modern well into the ‘90s, now it is a bygone era for which I’m nostalgic. Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gadgets include a boom box rocket launcher, and a villain uses a Walkman. Bond still smokes because this was before movie characters quit smoking.
I like the music. Apparently, A-Ha hates their title song. It may be derivative of “A View to a Kill” but it’s intense and catchy. I also like the B song, “Where Has Everybody Gone” by The Pretenders, which works its way into the score too. An instrumental version plays during the climactic cargo hold fight.
Baker returned in the 90s as Jack Wade, a Felix Leiter substitute. It’s not unprecedented for an actor to play different characters in Bond movies. Maude Adams was two different characters in Roger Moore movies. I just don’t get why Jack Wade wasn’t Felix Leiter. Fortunately, the Craig movies corrected that. We need Jeffrey Wright back.
In being topical, The Living Daylights makes one mistake they couldn’t have anticipated at the time. Bond gets help from the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. In the ’80s that seemed like a good cause. 007 is in good company there too because Rambo also helped the Mujahadeen and Rambo III is even dedicated to them. It’s okay. I forgive Rambo and James Bond. We all trust the wrong people sometimes.
In the film, Bond and Karla are escaping a Russian air base in Afghanistan, so they went with the lesser of two evils (lesser in 1987). The Mujahadeen are still selling drugs to pay for their revolution. At least Bond talks them into betraying the Russians. Art Malik plays the leader Kamran Shah and went on to play the lead terrorist in True Lies. He’s still working internationally but it’s too bad Hollywood didn’t have more vision for him than Middle Eastern stereotypes.
I really liked Dalton as Bond so since I only have one other movie with him, I’ve forced myself to learn to like Licence to Kill. It’s a step down, but not as drastic as some of the Brosnans. As their first movie without any Fleming on which to base it (although they took elements from Live and Let Die which weren’t in that movie), Licence to Kill just feels like a mediocre ’80s movie. Felix Leiter and his new wife get attacked by a drug dealer so Bond goes after him for revenge. That’s the best you can do for James Bond? That’s the plot of a Cannon Chuck Norris movie.
Revenge just seems beneath James Bond (he didn’t even go that far for revenge on Blofeld for his own wife), but Brosnan and Craig movies have also relied on revenge so what do I know? I appreciate that it wants to say something about how Bond going rogue interferes with CIA and foreign missions, but it never quite gets there because Bond always gets his way.
There is cool action though. Everyone remembers the trucks in the climax but spear gunning an aqua plane is cool too. I don’t like James Bond in a bar fight though. That is definitely beneath him. That’s an American stuntman cliche.
I wish Dalton had gotten to make a third one. It would’ve been his Goldfinger/Spy Who Loved Me. As late as Cannes 1990 they were still planning one. Then MGM studio mergers tied it up for five years. The story is Dalton opted out at that point. It’s possible if five years felt too long a wait for him. That would’ve been nine years since he started on The Living Daylights. The time was right for Pierce Brosnan, who was supposed to be in Living Daylights until NBC picked up one last year of Remington Steele. But if that had worked out for him, he might’ve been the one stuck with only two Bond movies.
The Living Daylights is my favorite Dalton and actually my third favorite Bond behind Casino Royale and Spy Who Loved Me. It goes from snow capped mountains to desert heat in an epic adventure. I did get to see the Dalton double feature on the big screen one time when the American Cinemateque showed them on 35mm so at least I rectified my 1987 and 1989 mistakes of not seeing them in theaters. Still waiting for an LA theater to show A View to a Kill for me.